millbank headwind

Returning to London as a cyclist is like coming home. When I was little we’d often cycle as a family – down to Dulwich to visit grandparents, or every week to the Sumics music group off the Caledonia Road; every school morning for two years my dad would put me on the back of the tandem and take me down to Essex Road station, and my mum had taught me to handle the Old Street roundabout (killer of a dozen cyclists a year) aged about ten (which was, on reflection, genuinely insane.)

However, as an adult doing his own thing fifteen years later, this is a new and exciting world. Lessons learned among the Velocipede Squad:

  • The “cycling superhighways” are actually genuinely fantastic. My first ride from Paddington down to Vauxhall had maybe five hundred metres of road shared with vehicles; all the rest was segregated cycletrack, almost all of it offroad. It’s an approach I’ve never seen in Britain before, done properly: cyclists are treated like actual people. No, better than people. Like cars.
  • A lot of London cyclists take it seriously. The cult of spandex is in full force here, and its adherents are everywhere, dolled up in fetish gear and humping two grand of carbon fibre at warp five. The Millbank peloton makes me feel small, slow, afraid, low-vis and unreflective. It stings.
  • Fortunately, the Dutch/Danish baseline approach of “it’s too far to walk and too nice a day to get the metro, let’s use this legitimate method of two-wheeled transport with our normal clothes” isn’t extinct. Boris bikes (which should really be named Ken bikes, but what the hell) are a very important and very visible enabler of this, and comprise maybe a quarter of the bikes on the morning commute.
  • Probably due to a lack of proper hills, many London cyclists have no clue how to use their gears. There’s always some dipshit standing on his pedals. Always.
  • The Millbank peloton forcing its way onto the MI5 roundabout, against right of way and in the face of actual motor vehicles, by sheer force of numbers and overwhelming impatience, is a bizarre and terrifying thing to see.
  • There are some truly superb calves and arses on display on my usual route to work. Given the unisex nature of cycling cult gear, it’s often hard to ascertain the gender of their owners, which probably badly confuses and upsets some people.
  • HGVs on London roads move gently, tentatively, clearly very aware of the terrible damage they can do. People are surprisingly polite to buses, and buses are surprisingly polite in return. There is an intense, passionate mutual hatred between cabbies and cyclists.
  • There’s a neat little initiative Lambeth Council are running, creating cycling spaces out of parking spaces with custom-made lockable sheds you can ask for a space in. I registered a request when I first moved here, was told to expect a response soon, and several months later haven’t had it. Apparently there’s a vast backlog because the contractor doing it is the only one in the UK capable of building lockable sheds, and Lambeth are utterly unable to compel any sort of performance out of them. Classic public-private partnership.
  • There are still far, far too many prick cyclists who think they’re too cool for red lights and will sail through in full view of everyone, including across surges of moving traffic and through pedestrians crossing the road. Annoyingly, they usually survive, so I move for a programme of public crucifixions.
  • My boss pointed out that most drivers in central London are professionals: chauffeurs, bus drivers, van drivers, taxi drivers, lorry drivers. On reflection, it shows. Private vehicles are actually in the minority, which is a blessing. I don’t want to be either in or around a regular car.
  • I’m not really frightened of cars hitting me, because in the tight confines nothing goes fast enough to do any serious damage. I am however terrified of being crushed between them, and the godawful lanewreck around Parliament Square requires being between lanes for most of it. Not fun.
  • Either the lanes on the southbound side of Whitehall heading onto Parliament Square need better marking, or they’re putting something in the water, as there’s not once I’ve followed it without five idiots in the wrong lane indicating and trying to shoulder their way in.

the redoubtable beast has had pegasus pills

Following that time back in January I managed to write five hundred words about a backpack, A Materialistic Love-Letter to a Physical Object II: THE BICYCLE.



I’ve never actually had a new new bike. Various second-hand/hand-me-down/shared family bikes (and the tandem) have done me for most of my life and family cycling holidays, with a brief, memorable ride to the Giant’s Causeway on some ankle-shredding pieces of crap we hired from some Ulster wide boy, and a characterful little clunker once borrowed for a few euros to pootle around Tempelhof.  For the first year of uni, I borrowed my dad’s zippy Marin, but he took it back in the end.

At the start of second year, I was given a nearly-new second hand bike by my wonderful un-godparents, which served very well for nipping around campus and taking me to various hellish corners of Birmingham for my census work. It was my mainstay for a long time, the first machine I as an adult felt any ownership of, with aftermarket aluminium pedals I fitted when the plastic ones fell apart, and a little green zip-tie round the headtube identifying my right to lock it to things around Mason Halls. But it was quite heavy, and was never really the same after Dad jammed it into the back of the car when shipping out for third year: the derailleurs clicked in spite of endless fiddling with the levers and cables, and the brakes seemed to be useless despite one replacement after another. But it served well (if decreasingly frequently) over the next couple of years, until I locked it up in the city centre when going off to Ukraine, and came back to find it missing.

Feeling a bike-shaped hole in my life, I went around shops and poked listlessly at the internet – there’s a strong second-hand market on Gumtree, but it seems to move very fast, when the one thing I don’t want to do is rush. Demand moves fast at the various second-hand places in Bristol, too – everything I could find was some combination of the wrong size, the wrong shape, rather expensive, or fitted with those stupid sodding frame-mounted gear levers for racing hipsters. If I were feeling somewhat flush, my choice would have been a Bristol Bicycle, from local legends Jake’s Bikes, a wonderful setup which also happens to be right next door to my current office. They’re designed as city bikes, rather than mountain bikes or racers, and have a real thought-through appeal to them: you get a very strong sense that some blokes who work at a bike workshop have been making notes of issues their customers have for a long time, and set out to put together a bike which addresses them.

Not long after Ukraine, I started my temp job at the bank, and when I got made permanent recently one of the Proper Employee benefits I was keen to take advantage of was the Cycle Scheme, which lets you buy a new bike from pre-tax salary sacrifice – ie, you avoid paying income tax or NI (so savings north of 30%) – and which Jake’s happily offer. The process developed into a massive struggle, with repeated problems with their online form and, once I’d actually ordered the bike and attendant lock, pannier rack and mudguards, our idiotic work systems cancelled the whole thing and demanded I go through the process again – so, feeling a) flush from a tax refund, b) thoroughly cheesed off at the whole silly system, I just went down to the shop and bought the thing outright.


The new toy, now with mudguards and pannier rack
The new toy, now with mudguards and pannier rack.

It’s a “Park Street”, crisp black and silver,* with smaller wheels than I’m used to but excellent gears and a light, compact aluminium frame; the brakes are superb, the posture natural. I was struck on my first ride how odd it felt to have a bike all tuned up and silent, with no clicking or rattling anywhere, no stick in the controls or idiosyncrasies in the gear levers. It felt… nice. I don’t actually need it for my current trip to work – which is fairly hilly and takes exactly half an hour, my cutoff point for where the extra faff of cycling (especially needing extra clothes and kit, which you really do with these cold dark winter afternoons) outweighs the travel time saved. But it’s very nice to have, for the future, a machine which absolutely fits my spec and feels right, one which is, for the first time, something just for me.


* The Bristol Bikes are matte black with plain metal fittings, and no fancy or show-offy bits; Jake explained to me that he wanted them to be very un-flashy, to avoid attracting thieves’ attention. While I agree with the rationale, I think it’s gorgeous and would totally nick it.

and a stick to beat the devil with

I am 21!

(…an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone…)

On the 25th Zoe (Oliver’s girlfriend) was moving into Birmingham, and her parents offered me a lift back to Bristol, which I gladly accepted. We spent the afternoon at Zoe’s house nomming delicious steak, failing at racing games and playing Risk with her brother Mark til Dad finished his orchestra and came to pick us up, and I went to my top-floor bed and slept there for the first time in what felt like (but hasn’t actually been) a long time.

“Bro, what do you want for your cake this year? A hedgehog?”
“We’ve made quite a few hedgehogs, haven’t we?”
“A tortoise?”
“Hmm, maybe. Ooh! I know!”
“A star fort!”

On the 26th, Olly taught me WordPress things that will come in useful if I end up being the IT monkey for Redbrick, and we rebuilt most of my computer in my new case. (Which is awesome. 120mm fan at the front, great airflow, HDDs come in a removable thing; I am happy.) I visited Maeve’s house down the hill, and she gave me birthday biscuits. Bill and James came round and, and we did bro things. Bill gave me a copy of the new PCG, full of Valve goodness.

We did lots of Geometry and Measuring and came up with a five-pointed fort with good overlapping fields of fire and cannon-resistant icing. It was a very scientific cake, and Mum now knows her bastions and ravelins better than any other mum. She also makes better birthday cakes than any other mum. I challenge you – who else has had a trace italienne cake for their 21st? Nobody. Took Bill, James and brothers for a massive burger-dinner at YoYo (aka Burger Tank), and came back via Tesco when Mum called and requisitioned extra Madeira cake for more ravelins.

And on the 27th I woke up legally older, and enjoyed the first of what are bound to be many long, lazy lie-ins as a 21-year-old.

Nick had school and Mum had work in the morning, so the actual festivities were to be held off til lunchtime. I was moving computer things around in the sitting room, setting up in preparation of an anticipated graphics-card-esque present, when Dad came in and said “Hey, could you… look at something downstairs?”


Jez and Sue had come up from London to wish me a happy birthday. They’re my Un-godparents, best of our many family friends and companions on numberless shared holidays. Love and compliments were exchanged; then a couple of minutes later they innocuously asked me if I’d like to help unload their car.


A new bike. No, really, a new bike (well, a six-month old bike with one extremely careful owner.) And a really warm upmarket-looking reflective cycling jacket (but thankfully no skin-tight lycra shorts). And a Jez and Sue for my birthday. All this came so completely out of left field that I confess I just sat there grinning and mumbling thanks for a few minutes.

Bill arrived, as did Mum, and we all tucked in to a huge birthday roast duck. Then it was PRESENTS O’CLOCK. Mum had bought me new panniers. And my shiny new 5770, all huge and gleaming red and silver and copper and HNGGGG. Nick showed up from school with his suit and his too-much-hair, ate and presented me with the tortoise drawing that had won him VICTORY in GCSE art. Mum had made me another kite, to replace my dearly beloved lost one; white with red stars. And a Beano with a little wind-up thing that launched whizzy helicopters, because if you turn 21 around you get 12.

Installed the new GPU with Bill and played some test rounds of L4D with all the graphics turned up to fifteen and 8xMSAA just because.

We besieged the star fort (four candles to a bastion plus one on the parade ground) with knife and spoon, and it was glorious and delicous. We took lots of pictures, but there is a good reason I’m not posting them at the moment. We plotted a possible holiday to Sri Lanka next-but-one Christmas, and Dad and Jez both got hilariously out of their skulls on wine and champagne, while the younger generation exchanged embarrassed looks. Jez and Sue left in a taxi, mildly sozzled, and Owen and Joey arrived and gave their regards. Full of cake, we went out into the garden and lit a massive bonfire to burn the accumulated dead plants of recent gardening tidy-ups and dance around naked shouting heathen nonsense. Human faces look wonderful by firelight.

Mum had dropped the camera somewhere while dragging a huge pile of brambles down to the fireside, and we hunted fruitlessly for it in the dark for a while. The only full-size firework we had left was a Catherine wheel, and we accidentally nailed it to the tree the wrong way round, but short of making the blue touch paper rather more fiddly to get than expected, it wasn’t a problem; it was just as pretty, with a marvellous blue corona at the end.

Owen and Joey excused themselves to go and get dinner, and we Geeked and drank masses of tea, and then all decided we were very hungry and mounted an expedition up to the chip shop. On the way up Hensman’s Hill, we bumped into Owen and Joey, who had changed their minds and wanted to dine with us after all. Masses of haddock and chips were subsequently consumed.

Best 21st birthday I’ve ever had, even if everyone is telling me it’s only downhill from here. This morning, parents found the gutted remains of the camera in the ashes of the fire. But other than that, it was good.

life is a battlefield, and you’re Audie Murphy

When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

There is indeed nothing quite like hopping on your bike at wat o’clock and zipping through a deserted campus at breakneck speed.

Feels good, man.

hustlers, cheats and anglers, fixers, sharps and mutineers

So! I have roundly failed at bike maintenance.

Back tyre went alarmingly flat (again, after I got some Halfords prawns to replace it in the first term). Went to Halfords again, on a bumpy grocery trip (checked the nice independent Selly Cycles opposite, which was shut, first) and the oh-so-helpful service prawn offered to sell me a new inner tube but not to fit it, because he was apparently busy (could have fooled me; whatever.) I thought “oh what the hell, this is a life skill or something.”

I got home and managed to (after much painful prising) remove the wheel. However, no amount of painful prising or bent spoons (fortunately re-bent into proper shape, but damn) would get the bloody tyre off, and I feared I was damaging it in my attempts. Eventually I gave up, and then spent fifteen painful greasy minutes trying to get the wheel and chain back into place. And this is a quick release wheel, mind you.

I resolved to just pump up the tire and hope it lasted long enough to get up to Selly Oak and pay to have the bloody thing fitted. So I borrowed Siz’s bike pump… and the pressure gauge twizzled over and broke off. Fantastic. Sophie saved me with her hand pump, but I am Not Happy about this; I now have to buy a new pump on top of the other stupid expenses this is costing me. I will be damn sure to go when Selly Cycles are open rather than Halfords.

On the bright side I will be visiting family and watching John Boorman’s talk with the explosively talented Mr Reeve next Monday. Also, COGS highlander team is learning lots of lessons about team play at the moment; hopefully we can then put them into practice.

On the dark side I now have a Twatter.

Last week’s costs:
£10 COD4
£26 shopping
£5 tyre
£11 bus ticket
£15 online things
This is being an expensive fortnight, that’s almost two nights’ worth of alcohol more than I usually spend.

Also, I have it on good authority that Londonbros should see this if they’re around Greenwich this week.

we’ll have a storm now, and an earthquake if you like

Gather round me, all ye sinners, and hear the tales of The Redoubtable Beast, my noble steed, and the maintenance that nearly brought us both low.

Rear brakes had been so worn down they were grating metal against metal for a while. Right. Better replace them. I already had brakeblocks! Simple. My shiny new Allen keys, brake blocks, all good.

…except wait, these nuts are solid, and it’s the nut I need to get at, rather than the Allen key things. Also, one of the little nuts holding my mudguard on had fallen off. Right.

So I decided on Friday afternoon for parts purchasin’ and bike maintainin’. After Stuart’s seminar, cycled up to Selly Oak; realised I hadn’t brought my wallet. Hurr. Rode home for lunch and recriminations.

Went up to Halfords again, bought the mudguard nut, a cheap stamped metal multispanner thing, and some oil for my chain and gears. Went home and got out my Allen keys and brake blocks. Okay, the cosmetic stuff first. Detach light mounting and old rusted bell. Done! Done! Attach mudguard. Done! So far, so good. Brakeblocks. Twist. Strain. Oil. Twist. Strain. Why isn’t this coming off? Multispanner thing was completely the wrong shape and couldn’t get at the nuts, a real spanner was needed. Cycled down to the Bristol Road hardware shop and, with the aid of an extremely helpful hardware shop man who didn’t mind me taking the spanners out, got a 10mm spanner that would work. Cycled back home uphill in the gathering darkness, using front brakes only. Okay, time to get these blasted blocks on.
Yeah, except even with the right spanner and the right leverage it still didn’t work because everything was rusted shut. Even worse, on putting the cantilever brake assembly thing back together I realised I had lost a critical nut.


Sarah recommended a bike shop in Selly Oak, who weren’t open on the weekend; I intended to visit on Monday, but had a sudden case of essay fatigue and upon returning from disability assessment collapsed in bed and didn’t get up till nine in the evening.

Disability assessment thing: exam arrangements arranged, special tuition offers offered, and grant request sent off to DSA, who should be scheduling their own needs assessment with me sometime soon, though they apparently have an immense backlog of paperwork. Everything bright and shiny, just need to talk to Caterina at the start of next term to make all things clear to her.

Today I cycled up to Selly Oak for hopefully the last time this term to see if Selly Oak Cycles were as good as Siz sez. And they were. Fitted my brakeblocks, replaced my lost nut, and gave me a chocolate when I returned from Sainsbury’s to pick it up. For £5, half of what I’d spent on tools and bits in my own failed attempts to be handy. Service with a smile. I thanked them and promised to return next time I had any bike problems. Since I seem to have developed a flat tyre on the way back… this may be quite soon.

Essays are in. The assessed Military Revolution one for Stuart is, I think, good. The formative Strategic Air Power one was written almost entirely from own knowledge with references from unhelpful books fudged in around vague statements at the last minute, and while I think it would be a truly fantastic A-level essay it’s probably not going to do well now that I need substantiated statements. But essays are now Over, and an weird feeling of relief has settled over me. I’ve actually done some serious work this term, and it feels good.

Awesome final seminar with Rob Thompson today about the causes of WW1. Every single seminar with him (except one on WW1/interwar theorist Basil Liddell Hart, which turned into a debate on Korea of all things) turns into an argument about WW1, so this was a fitting end to a term of great seminars. Next term: Gary Sheffield, premier UK military historian.

Tonight: Worsoc social at The Old Contemptibles, apparently to be attended by a number of our academics, including Rob. This was the draw; if it were just war nerds in a pub in town, I probably wouldn’t bother to come.

Expenditures for last week: £35.06

“Aw, I need my umbrella and it’s stuck in the bloody pumpkin!” – Jess

Due to switcharoos and McLeod the Roman lecturer man being unable to give his lecture on strategy, I had Rob Thompson two days in a row, which was great fun, despite (or perhaps due to) his habit of turning everything into a debate about the First World War. Lecture on total war/limited war? Ludendorff, Lloyd George and “business as usual”. Seminar on Vegetius and De Re Militari? DOUGLAS HAIG UP IN THIS BITCH.

More confident than ever that I have chosen the right course.

Returning from seminars I found a giant parcel, which was addressed to “Panzerwurst” to the bemusement of flatmates. Tom has posted me my Blastwave costume. He didn’t send the assault rifle as it was in London, which is sad but probably a good thing in a “I don’t want to get shot by the police” way. Egged on by evil blockmates, I silently terrified Flat 69. Intimidating full-face helmets, hoorah. I plan to bring this to the LAN.

Tuesday afternoon I attended a social of the nascent War Society, essentially drinking, telling drunken stories, wisecracking about war and arguing about war movies. We read and wrote in various forms to gain legitimacy from the Guild as a society and thus access to things like projector-capable rooms, decided on legal membership-fee based funding (despite the magnificent opportunities the clock tower would give us for rifle-related extortion of protection money) and are planning lists of war films to watch and possible field trips to fun warry places.

A poster on the inside door of the bike shed advertised a cycling advice thing at University Centre. So I went there, had my bike examined and oiled and brakes and gears tuned and bought a shiny high-visibility waistcoat thing (the long-sleeved kind, which they recommended, as it was the reflective stripes on the sleeves that actually mattered at night). In-the-know bike man told me that because of the older style of the brakes they’d never be as good as newer designs, but they were as good as they would get right now. His overall verdict was however “this is a good bike. Ride it till it falls apart and then get a new one.” That’s the plan, yeah.

Found myself reading Storm of Steel (memoirs of Ernst Junger, a WW1 stormtrooper) for most of the 11th. Not sure if this was a very good or very bad thing to be doing on Remembrance Day.

The rain suddenly appears in a horrible sustained downpour. Hopefully this will deter the billion and one crows who have appeared this week and continually orbit my block calling out all night and day in a deeply worrying way.

Got our essays back from Stuart today. The one I handed in, which I feared was drivel and horribly rushed due to failpacing and mental breakdowns, came out as 62*. Stuart however told us all that he had marked excessively harshly, that we could expect a grade higher in summer marking, and that in my case it anyway would be a 68 if it was a full essay rather than two thirds of an essay (I chose, when basically out of time, to polish the 1200 words I had rather add another 800 words of mediocrity, and explained this to him in a note). Spent the seminar talking over what to know to work on next time, and will get individual feedback on our essays next Thursday.
All this considered, 62 was still a low 2.1**. So I’m feeling much more confident and will begin reading for the next one forthwith.

£4.50 shiny waistcoat
£2.70 big pile of veg
£2.20 laundry
£? JoCo tickets (to be paid to the Hovercraft)

* 62/100, but the boundary for a First is 70 and Stuart tells me even genius essays rarely go above 80. Here top end grades actually mean something truly notable, and “very good” is still far from “best”. This pleases me.

** For Yanqui devils and other such outerlanders, this is the second highest qualification you can get at university here; it goes:
First Class Honours (known as a First; awesome-tier)
Second Class Honours in upper (2:1, which from a good uni is a respectable qualification) and
lower division (2.2, you drank a lot)
Third Class Honours (worthless)
Pass (despite the name: kill yourself)